The Atom is one of those characters who hasn’t quite stood the test of time as well as many of his contemporaries. While he’s still around in one form or another, it seems like attempts to give him his own series are sporadic at best, and often not long-lasting. In part, that’s because of the changing tastes and expectations of the audience. As comic books became more and more about physical contests of strength and power throughout the 1960s and 1970s, characters such as the Atom, who weren’t that physically impressive, fared less well. The Atom’s stock-in-trade, as with many of the DC heroes before the influence of Marvel started to be felt, was in gimmick stories, little mysteries or puzzles that needed to be solved. Brain versus brawn. On a more primal level, I don’t truly know how appealing becoming smaller is as a power fantasy–interesting, sure, but desirable?
In any event, THE ATOM was popular in the early 1960s, and so a number of issues were among that windfall box of comics that I bought for fifty bucks back in 1988. As was typical of his output, editor Julie Schwartz divided the issue up into two stories, although in this case both of them featured the titular character rather than a separate back-up feature. Relatively unique for Schwartz and for DC as a whole, he also credited the creators of the stories on the splash page–something that Marvel had started doing but which wouldn’t become standard for DC for another half-decade yet. I’m not quite sure why THE ATOM was the one title so honored, but, you know, good for Gardner Fox, Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson.
This opening tale, the one featured on the cover, is about as down-to-Earth as the series got, revolving around international spies and intrigue and a new scientific discovery. In specific, Professor Ferdinand Alt has created a new anti-gravity material he calls Cavorite (after a term in an H.G. Wells story–Schwartz comics were often littered with these sorts of factoids) and fashioned what looks like a toy flying saucer out of it as a proof of concept. But when Alt is gunned down by enemy agents of a foreign government (which is as specific as DC would ever get to narrowing down who the bad guys were meant to be–they were from behind the Iron Curtain but that’s as much as they’d ever say) the CIA needs somebody to go to Vienna and retrieve the saucer. The Atom volunteers–but when he attempts to phone call himself to Vienna, the enemy agents have the line bugged and divert the call to their headquarters, where they attempt to finish off the Tiny Titan. The final page of this opening chapter includes a half-page ad for other DC releases from the Schwartz-stable, and relied on the hooks of their covers to interest prospective buyer into snatching them up when next they were at a news outlet.
As the second chapter opens, for reasons that are really more about justifying the “grabber” cover image than anything else, rather than straight up murdering the Mighty Mite, the bad guys strap him to a grenade and hurl him to his doom. But the Atom is able to activate the size-and-weight controls in his gloves and shrink out of his bonds and to safety before he can be caught in the detonation of the grenade. Fortunately, thanks to the Comics Code, no bystander was injured by the thrown grenade either. I feel the need to mention the clean and wonderfully composed artwork of Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson here. This was very much the house look of the DC super hero titles of the era, with lots of bright, open spaces and everything depicted with a certain degree of clinical reserve. Kane himself apparently felt constrained working in such a manner, like drawing in a straitjacket, and he would cut loose with more explosive action once he was permitted to in the years to come.
Anyway, the Atom makes his way to the model flying saucer and succeeds in purloining it despite the efforts of the enemy operatives to stop him. But in a bit of a twist, he’s worked out that Professor Alt was working for them all along (he wasn’t actually gunned down) and that the prototype itself would detonate destructively upon being experimented on. It’s really a weapon the enemy couldn’t sneak across the border into America, so they contrived this whole adventure to trick the CIA in the person of the Atom into delivering it for them. The bad guys wanted him to steal it and were only putting up a token resistance–which explains why they didn’t kill him, but not quite why they tried to blow him up on a grenade. As the story wraps up, we get cover ads for another pair of Schwartz-edited titles.
Next up was a letters page, which occupied something of a middle point between those of fellow DC editor Mort Weisinger and rival editor Stan Lee. Schwartz’s letters pages tended to skew towards intelligent, well-written correspondence that evidenced some seriousness. While not above dropping a groaner of a pun or a witty remark, the replies were meant to be more informative than informational. And Schwartz himself was only ever identified here as Editor. For a period of time, Schwartz began to award his letter writers the original artwork to the stories they were commenting on–which was a good thing in the final analysis, as this prevented DC from destroying all of that original art as they did with a lot of other pages from this period.
Schwartz’s books would also often include these sorts of fun science facts pages, as opposed to the more general public service features that ran elsewhere in the DC line (and sometimes in Julie’s books as well.) I have to assume that Schwartz liked this kind of feature since he used it with such regularity, and it did give his comics at least a veneer of being educational. Given how often he and his creative teams would mangle basic science in the service of fantasy in the main stories, perhaps this was an equitable bit of scale-balancing.
The second Atom story in this issue was inked by Sid Greene rather than Murphy Anderson–the letters page tells us that this has begun to happen because Murphy has started penciling and inking the new Hawkman strip in MYSTERY IN SPACE. And this is a really lovely splash page. Speaking for myself, while fans of the era tended to like Greene’s work over Kane just fine, I didn’t find it all that appealing a combination. Greene had a certain cartooniness to his faces and figures, one that occasionally came through even when he was inking other people. And he was something of a “thick sauce” as an inker, smothering the style of the penciler with his own.
The story is a potboiler framed through the conceit of the Atom testifying to events at the trial of the perpetrator. (The Ivy Town court allows him to testify without revealing his true identity, despite the protests of the defense counsel.) It’s about a lady criminal who uses trickery to make it appear that she could transform herself into a swan, based on a legend. The Atom gets himself tied to the pendulum of a clock in this one, but as usual, any excitement is intellectual rather than visceral. There’s a niceness to these stories, an inoffensiveness, that makes on admire the craft with which they are performed while remaining distant from them emotionally. The Atom had only really become a super hero in order to help out his girl friend lawyer Jean Loring in the first place, in the hopes that she would marry him once her law practice was successful enough–so adventures like this one, where he helps her to solve a crime and put away a bad guy only to once again have his overtures rejected were typical of the form. Also, right here at the end, we get an ad for a non-Schwartz-edited comic, the second issue of BRAVE AND THE BOLD devoted to its new team-up format. While Batman would eventually come to own B&B, at this point it was a clearing house for assorted random adventures bringing together two super-stars from all across the DC line, Aquaman and Hawkman in this case. (There was a bunch of fan interest in Hawkman at this moment, but he hadn’t yet earned his own series despite two runs of tryouts in BRAVE AND THE BOLD, which led to Schwartz featuring him in MYSTERY IN SPACE and changing his artist. All of which is to say, the Schwartz audience would have been interested in this issue of B&B consequently.)
And before we get to the “junk” ads devoted to toy soldiers and stamp collecting and the like, there’s one more DC house ad, this one devoted to two more of their 80 Page Annuals. This ad was produced more in the Weisinger style, touting the story hooks contained in each release as well as showing off each attractive cover. The whole ad is attractively calligraphed by DC’s in-house logo and typography expert Ira Schnapp. It’s almost better than the comics it’s hawking–almost.